OKI Wanna Know: Who Abandoned Fort Thomas' Houses?
Our feature OKI Wanna Know tries to uncover forgotten stories, to revisit the overlooked, and explain that which doesn't seem to make sense. The questions come from you. This time, WVXU's Bill Rinehart tackles a military mystery in Northern Kentucky.
Kasey Bradford wrote in with a question about Fort Thomas, Kentucky:
"With every old small town there are urban legends, but one of the most common during my childhood was about the abandoned massive homes in 'Tower Park.' For all of my childhood these homes were abandoned. You could look in and still see furniture. It looked as if the tenants just dropped everything they were doing and left in a rush. We always thought these homes were haunted and had dark history but I am very curious as to why these homes were abandoned and why so abruptly?"
To find the answer, we have to go back to the beginning.
Fort Thomas - the military installation not the community - has a long history, but it has very little to do with the Civil War. There were forts across northern Kentucky when the Confederates were threatening to attack Cincinnati, but Fort Thomas was not one of them, according to amateur Civil War historian and author David Mowery.
"There were a ring of hills and higher elevations about eight miles long that ranged from Bromley, Kentucky to what is today Fort Thomas."
In his book, Cincinnati in the Civil War, Mowery says Union forces built batteries and fortifications along this ring, including one in what is now Evergreen Cemetery in Southgate, and another on what is now Tower Place, west of South Fort Thomas Avenue. They were built to discourage an attack by rebel General Henry Heth.
"There was some action around Fort Mitchell, but that was really the only time when the Confederates tested these batteries and forts. They were so extensive, they were so heavily defended, Henry Heath saw them and said 'It's not worth my effort,'" Mowery says.
The fortifications were abandoned after the war. The director of the Fort Thomas Military and Community History Museum, Deanna Beineke, says high water brought the army back to the hilltop a few years later. Prior to moving to Fort Thomas, the army had barracks in Newport, where the Licking River meets the Ohio.
"In 1883 and 1884, there were back to back floods," says Beineke. "There was always the possibility of flooding or drought, but in those two years - '83 the river went to 67 feet (and) in '84 the river went to 70 feet. The Department of the Army threw up its hands and said 'We're not throwing good money after bad again' and decided to look for higher ground."
Beineke says they decided to build in a peach orchard in what was then called the District of the Highlands.
"This was never a fort in the traditional sense of 'the enemy is coming.' It was more a civil presence. There were a number of these forts built in the late 1880s up to about 1900," she says. "This place never did become a huge military installation because we were small and the city grew up around it. There was no place to go."
Beineke says troops stationed at the fort were sent to fight in the Spanish American War and in the Philippines. The installation eventually hosted a rehabilitation hospital for the Army Air Corps toward the end of the second World War, and a few years later welcomed a VA hospital and an Army Reserve contingent, both of which are still there.
The last soldier was processed at Fort Thomas in 1964. By 1972, most of the grounds were turned over to the city to be used as a park.
"The houses on Greene Street and Pearson Street, until 1972, provided housing for federal officials, federal administrators, VA administrators and personnel. The houses on Alexander Circle were occupied until 2002 by federal employees."
But, back to the original question: Why was there furniture in some of those houses while no one was living there. Beineke says there's an easy explanation.
"The government provided furniture for them. If they decided they didn't want that furniture they could bring their own. But many of them, because it was a temporary assignment, would just bring a few pieces that made it their own and used the government-supplied furniture," she says.
Today, those homes are privately owned. Beineke says to the best of her knowledge, no one living there now has ever said anything about a haunting.
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